Homelessness

I have recently been traveling short distances by bus. On almost every (free) trip there is some poor soul, disheveled, hair down to his shoulders and carrying a weird assortment of plastic bags etc.

Homelessness where I live is all too common and affects both black and white communities.  They closed the hospital/ hostel called St. Elizabeth’s,  a haven for homeless people.  There seems nowhere for these poor souls to go. Recently, a man I spoke to said that he, his wife and children, were camping in the local library (there was no reason to think he was lying).

Many  have lost their jobs and homes (the virus is only one reason) and have psychological problems.  I keep some cash on me on the way to the gym to help anyone clearly in distress. (Yes, there is the drugs question – is that what the money will go on?) Notwithstanding the fact that you cannot know all the circumstances, I consider it a disgrace that these homeless people are not looked after.

For a quarter of the money handed by the current government to the ultra-rich in the last few years, every one of these homeless people could be given a roof over their heads, however basic.  Now that would be Christian!

Without  regard to gender, income, class and origin Epicurus welcomed people into his garden.  The least we can collectively do is to contribute towards giving the homeless shelter and food – and a bit of self-respect.  I will stay off the politics of all this, but the implications are obvious to everyone.

 

OK Boomer!

 “OK Boomer.” is the retort from Generation Z (now in their teens to mid-twenties), to Baby Boomers (in their 50s to 70s) “who just don’t get it”. Teenagers use it to reply to Boomers ranting about “snowflakes”; to climate-change deniers; to Donald Trump’s tweets; to basically “any person over 30 who says something condescending about young people and the issues that matter to them”. It’s “the digital equivalent of an eye-roll”, blasé but cutting, and it’s all over social media.

It started as a meme, but now “OK Boomer” merchandise is selling like hot cakes: phone cases, bed sheets, stickers, socks, shirts, posters, water bottles. Many regard it as the “perfect response” – not least because it offends Boomers, who themselves are always going on about how easily offended the young are these days. There is, though, a serious side to the phenomenon.

“Anti-Boomer sentiment” is genuinely on the up, fed by “rising inequality, unaffordable college tuition, political polarisation and the climate crisis”. “OK Boomer” is a jokey phrase, but also a symptom of real hostility. Does it mark “the end of friendly generational relations?” (Taylor Laurenz, New York Times & The Week, Nov 9, 2019).

My comment:  I belong to the generation that preceded the baby boomers.  We lived through World War 2, experiencing rationing, bombing, and fathers absent at war.  No one had time, resources or inclination to spoil us.  But the generation after  this – the boomers – is another matter. They enjoyed the post- war boom, seemingly  unable to grasp how they, as a generation, enjoyed the voyage but then shoved the younger generation back into the cold water – overpriced housing, no job security, often no pensions, and outrageously expensive further education – to name just four parts of the problem.

My personal sympathy is totally with the young.  No wonder many are resentful and hostile!  Maybe Covid will change things, but I’m not betting on it.

 

Namibia: for something different

  For five years now, Germany has been in talks with Namibia about making reparation for the mass murder by German troops of some 80,000 Namibians between 1904 and 1908, when the territory was under German colonial rule.

Berlin has offered €10m in reparation, but descendants of the few survivors are seeking $4bn. Namibia’s president, Hage Geingob, has called the offer “unacceptable”, but said his government would continue to negotiate for a “revised offer”. The massacre, viewed by some historians as a forerunner of the Holocaust, occurred when the Nama and Herero people revolted against land seizures by German troops. The ongoing negotiations are being seen as a bellwether for other African countries demanding redress for decades of colonial brutality.

In June, King Philippe of Belgium expressed his “deepest” regrets for atrocities in the Congo, where some ten million people died during Belgian rule.

My take:  We visited Namibia on a spectacular holiday. There are still dozens of tribal groups who speak “click” languages.  Other languages include German, Africaans, and English.  The desert that spills over into the ocean, is a wonderful sight, as is the wildlife.  Elephants have apparently migrated south and find (reasonable) safety in Namibia.  And we saw wild pangolin, among other copious wildlife. I highly recommend Namibia.  The history is something else.

 

The death of menswear

The middle market is the toughest part of every industry, not just fashion.  Even so, it’s striking how much pain is being felt in the “middle stratum” of US menswear, where “bankruptcies are piling up like pawed-over pairs of trousers at a clearance sale”. Names like Barneys, Brooks Brothers and J.Crew are all in “very deep trouble” – demonstrating that the middle market, “big and appealing as it is”, is potentially lethal territory.

When trouble hits, high-end players invariably “seek bigger dollars by moving downmarket”, while low-cost producers “seek higher margins by moving up”, thereby squeezing out the middle dwellers. Usually, the cycle simply continues. But it may not this time – because, in addition to the problem of mid-market economics, “demand for mid-range menswear is disappearing”.

Most men today have just two types of clothes: their “best stuff” and the jeans and T-shirts they wear at weekends – and, increasingly, for work. Those of us who enjoy “variations in sartorial tone” have become “oddball hobbyists, like birdwatchers or opera buffs”. It’s fun, but there’s not much profit in it. (Robert Armstrong, Financial Times, 22 August 2020).

My comment: No snappy dresser me, but I rather like dressing up to go out to dinner or the theatre. People take you more seriously when you are well dressed and groomed and obviously look after yourself.  They seem less interested in jeans and T- shirts…………I think.

A weekly piece of rhymed verse

The Sartorial Fox

A fox without his shoes and socks

Is incorrectly dressed;

His jacket should be laundered

And his trousers should be pressed.

For, hunting in the woodland,

He might meet a deer or vole,

A marmoset or hedgehog,

A tortoise or a mole.

Imagine his embarrassment should

Such a thing occur,

And he passed by and said, “Good day”,

In just his under-fur.

(October 2004)

Too many people going to university?

This year, in the US, 30.2% of 18-year-olds have university places.

Almost any sort of professional job requires a degree these days, and the graduate premium (the earning difference between those who did and didn’t go to university) is £10,000 a year on average.

The trouble is, however, that “most people aren’t average” and, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a fifth of graduates are actually worse off for going. And as the number who do so keeps rising  the graduate premium is likely to shrink as degrees become ever more commonplace.

Which raises awkward questions about whether it is wise for the state, which pays almost half the cost of people’s university education, to be bailing out the 13 universities thought to be at risk of going bust. The truth is that “firms are crying out for people with all sorts of skills – web design, software development – that aren’t much taught at university”. Yes, this country does need to spend more on education. But not on its universities.   (Emma Duncan, The Times)

My comment:  It’s sad ( and annoying) that the media relentlessly talks about money – how much more you earn than those who never reach university.  This sends an un-Epicurean message that income is all that matters in the modern world.

I would posit that, while it’s natural to want a chance for a well- paid job, it is the experience of university that matters for the rest of your life – an understanding of life, mind training, the improved ability to think things through and to be adaptable and creative, to make lifelong friends and to acquire better person-management skills.  Not to mention growing up!  As for technical skills, they still have to be learned, degree or not.  It was always thus.

In my day ( in the UK) only 4% of the young population went on to further education.  The world is better for the 30% now attending university.

Conspiracy theories

The modern conspiracy theory is usually traced back to Augustin Barruel, a former Jesuit who argued in the 1790s that the French Revolution was the result of a clandestine intrigue dating back centuries, carried out by secret societies: Freemasons, Templars, Bavarian Illuminati, and so on. Barruel later expanded his theory to include the Jews, giving birth to the “Judeo-Masonic myth”. This has been wheeled out to explain every upheaval in Western history, from the events of 1848 to the Russian Revolution, to the outcome of the First World War. As adapted by Russia’s Tsarist secret police, and then the Nazis, the myth was used to justify some of the most brutal episodes in European history.

In his 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”, the historian Richard Hofstadter argued that right-wing US fringe movements were particularly susceptible to such thinking. The bogeymen changed, from the Illuminati to Catholics to communists (or, he might have said, liberal paedophiles). But each time, the “style” was the same, blaming complex social ills on “a vast and sinister conspiracy, a gigantic yet subtle machinery set in motion to undermine and destroy a way of life”. And such an enemy, of course, demands not “political give-and-take, but an all-out crusade”.   (The Week, 22 August 2020)

My comment: Conspiracy theories are the resort of those psychologically messed up people who are incapable of quietly discussing or debating policies on which they disagree.  If you are dumb, uneducated and inarticulate, your resort is to drag the other guy down in the dirt.  “Sucking the blood of little children?” Pathetic.  Grow up!

Anxiety

My wife and I were discussing self-confidence the other day, and I got to thinking that there can be a challenge as you get old and a bit forgetful.  If you have had a long, successful and loving marriage, discussing everything and coming to consensus every day (all day?), then, when having to handle an issue by yourself, anxiety can set in.

If you are a man (certainly, if you were brought up in England in the old days) there was a presumption and expectation that you would act on all occasions of stress as a “man” – calm, reliable, decisive and confident.  But doing most things with your spouse, social and otherwise, outside the home hides up a certain insecurity and anxiety.  Will I do X correctly, calmly and authoritively?  Will I remember everything I am supposed to remember, like…their names?   Did I bring my wallet?

I was expecting illness in old age, but what I got was anxiety.  By the way, is it Thursday or Friday?

Laughing at oneself helps.

London: Embracing tech distancing

Commuters, as a tribe, tend to be “unloved”.  Victorians called them “the dark horde”. T.S. Eliot compared them to the souls in hell. But now suddenly we need them, desperately. “Come back, commuters. Rally to your city. It needs your fares, your rents, your Starbucks, your Prets, your nights on the tiles.” Without them, cities are dying. In London, Tube travel is down around 75%. “Shopping is crippled, at 32% of normal footfall.” Boris Johnson is urging us to return to our offices, without success: a third of UK office workers have returned to their desks, against 70% to 83% in Germany, Italy and France.

But while the PM was encouraging us to go back, the Chief Scientific Adviser, Patrick Vallance, was declaring that there was “absolutely no reason” for people to stop working from home. Besides, Britons seem to have fallen in love with working from home , or WFH, as it is now known. And no wonder. One manager at a big insurance company told me that there had been a 15% improvement in productivity among home workers – perhaps because they were no longer enduring long, stressful commutes, and were able to sleep for longer, and spend more time with their families. So what if the rail unions and coffee chains charging £3 a cup lose out as a result? A YouGov survey found that 68% of homeworking newcomers would like to keep working from home when the crisis is over.

That’s all very well for them, but not so good if you live in a tiny flat, or work in a company serving commuters. Few phrases make the heart sink more than: “You are invited to a Zoom chat.” Cue “a screen full of squinting faces”, some periodically disappearing, everyone saying: “No… no, you first… you… what?” For all its benefits, the technology is deeply frustrating, and it’s no long-term a substitute for meeting colleagues face-to-face. “Please let tech-distancing be for the pandemic, not for life.”  (Simon Jenkins, London Evening Standard, repeated in The  Week, 15 August 2020).

My comment:  I wonder how an improvement in productivity of 15% was measured.  Or is it a figure plucked from the air?  All I know is that my British family members and friends are, indeed, working successfully at home, and are not complaining.  I can see an argument for an Epicurean solution: splitting time between office and home (50% each?), a compromise.  It does help to talk face to face with your colleagues, especially when it comes to people management. Awkward interviews may be even more awkward if you are dealing with them online.  I used to like looking into the eyes and watching the body language.

Leaving the office

The British, it would seem, are keen on the new trend – induced by Covid-19 – of working from home. In a recent YouGov poll, only 13% of British adults felt workers able to do their job from home should return to the office; and as a Morgan Stanley survey has shown, only a third of UK office staff have returned to their usual workplace, compared to 83% in France and 76% in Italy.

But fans of home working would do well to bear in mind the case of “Bob”, says Andrew Hill. He was the US software developer for a big company who in 2013 outsourced his job to a Chinese consulting firm, giving them a slice of his salary while he traded on eBay and watched cat videos. His work didn’t suffer: on the contrary, “quarter after quarter” his bosses marked him as “the best developer in the building”. Except, of course, his work wasn’t being done in the building. And there’s the rub. For if working from home makes it easy for you to outsource your job without being detected, it also makes it easy for your boss to outsource you. If you can do your job anywhere, anyone can do your job. (Andrew Hill, Financial Times).

Comment:  “ Bob” was  dishonest and devious.  As such he was un-Epicurean.  Makes a good story, but you don’t do that to the boss; you hope he will have the integrity not to do it to you.

 

No end to the pharmaceutical racket!

Big Pharma giant Gilead last year dropped a sweet $31 million on its new CEO Daniel O’Day, along with marching orders to find a new path to greater profits. O’Day didn’t have to look far. The pandemic has given Gilead a new application — reducing Covid-19 recovery time — for its already developed antiviral drug remdesivir.

Gilead will be charging up to $3,120 for a five-day treatment, a price state attorneys general are calling “unconscionable” since the drug costs under $12 to manufacture. Critics are also charging that Gilead holds a patent on another antiviral that could serve as a less expensive substitute.

Why isn’t Gilead pushing that alternative? The drug’s patent turns out to expire five years sooner than the patent on remdesivir. So Gilead stands to make oodles less off it. O’Day, meanwhile, is dismissing all the critical static. All Covid patients, he insists ”will have access.” Yes, but only because tax dollars will be paying for 500,000 treatment courses of remdesivir through September, quite enough to guarantee O’Day and Gilead still another year of windfalls, (Inequality.org 22 Aug 2020)

Comment: I read this, by coincidence, within minutes of the President declaring that the government was delighted to announce that remdesivir will shortly be freely available throughout the country. Freely?

US universities are charging full fees for ‘virtual’ class this fall. This is absurd

Universities with huge endowments are pretending remote learning is the same experience as in person teaching.  Harvard, for instance, is offering the bulk of their courses online, as are the University of California system, Yale, and Princeton.

What they all are not doing is reducing tuition, even though a significant portion of the value these educational institutions provide is now lost indefinitely. Princeton offers a 10% price cut, but  Harvard  ($40bn endowment ) still charges full tuition. 

Remote learning, no matter how well-intentioned, is a diluted product, and students deserve a tuition reduction for sitting at home and staring at a laptop screen. Professors cannot connect with students in the same way. And the ancillary benefits of college – making friends, networking, joining clubs, playing  sport– are  lost.

College costs have soared, and now almost every institution, in the age of coronavirus, faces a reckoning. There is an argument that students, especially at prestige schools, are still getting the value of a (prestigious) degree and therefore should pay the full freight. Isn’t the diploma ultimately what matters? But that’s not how colleges and universities pitch themselves to unsuspecting freshmen.

College life is supposed to be an experience. Part of the tradeoff of taking on crippling debt is supposed to be the creation of unforgettable memories, those four life-changing years you’ll never have again. Remote learning promises none of that.

Public schools are in a tougher position than their wealthier private counterparts, generating much of their revenue from tuition.  Many states have left world-class public institutions begging for money, especially after the 2008 economic crash. . Without a massive federal bailout package, public universities and community colleges will be suffering for years to come, starved of tax revenue in the wake of the pandemic.

College costs have soared over the decades owing to declining public aid, expensive athletics, increased demand, and the rising cost of staff, particularly those not tied to the faculty – and now almost every institution, in the age of coronavirus, faces a reckoning. They can continue to overcharge students. Or they can attempt a measure of economic justice.   (Ross Barkan, The Guardián July 11 2020, edited for length)

My comment: What universities should do is to stop the “arms race” in athletics, which has consumed huge sums of money and added to the indecent cost of university education. The writer was an oarsman during his time, always making academic work the priority, so I have nothing against sport; it just has to be kept in sensible perspective.  Epicurean moderation!

e

Change of pace

The Hammock

We walk judiciously along the jetty,

Careful not to stray to the edge

Lest in the darkness we fall

And join the sleeping crabs and the seaweed,

Inching toward the beach.

At the jetty’s end there is a shelter

A sanctuary for those seeking solitude,

Watching the ocean in its many moods.

And there, beneath the simple, palm-frond roof,

A hammock.

Developed by the Arawaks to avoid scorpions and insects

The hammock morphed through shipboard use

And jungle exploration to become

Linked in the mind with lazy days and dozing.

Here there is no one to disturb us,

No one to walk the jetty, pass the time of night.

We collapse into the enfolding arms of the hammock,

Alone and at one with the universe.

In the half-waned moonlight

We can spot the Plough, or Dipper,

Standing forth in the far north-east.

And turning round, the North Star, too,

Seen low among the palm trees by the shore.

The air is crystal clear.  A million points of light blur into the melé.

This is the Milky way.

Only a man-made satellite above gleams bright and steady

And stays there always as the Earth turns.

Out in the ocean before us the lights of buoys and passage markers

Wink and glimmer in the darkness,

Where the sea’s horizon is lost in clouds of night.

And ships too, bound for the Gulf of Mexico,

Brazil and Venezuela, skirt the refs and sandy shoals.

A gentle breeze blows from the east

But otherwise all is warm and deliciously sub-tropical.

We are alone with the bright, white moon and the wide ocean,

Insignificant in the vast scale of things.

As we swing gently in the wind

We become entwined.

( Robert Hanrott, Islamorada, 2011)

 

 

Entering the country

“The Trump administration is reportedly considering  blocking US citizens and permanent residents from re-entering the US if an official “reasonably” believes they could have Covid-19.

Once upon a time, an American passport let you cross borders with ease – now it makes you persona non grata around the world. Not only are most Americans banned from Europe, but they may also no longer even be guaranteed entrance to their own home”. (Arwa Mahdaw, The Guardian).

My comment: “Reasonably believes”?  How can you ban bona fide citizens from re- entering the country on a personal hunch?  By all means test them at the airport and make sure they self-isolate until the test results are available, but this looks like another excuse for for banning people to whom you take an instant dislike, such as Black or Brown people, Muslims or people with dimples for all I know.

Please excuse the morbid personal note, but were my wife and I to go to London we would be required to be quarantined for two weeks the other end.  I could deal with that, except for the nine hours in a plane with strangers and the dodgy taxi ride the other end.  But even if we took the risk, could we get home again?

We have decided that Epicurean peace of mind requires us to stay where we are.  For how long?  A year more? The grand children will have forgotten what we look like, but we are no good to them in a mortuary.

Live like we used to before Covid 19?

 British government ministers speak frequently about ”it” and how they are striving to bring “it” back.  But survey by Britain Thinks found that only 12% of people want to live their lives “exactly as ‘it’ was before” the advent of Covid 19.

Only  6% of Britons want the same type of economy as they had before the pandemic, and only 9% want to return to “normal”, which means surviving an existential crisis of the environment, to mention just one threat.  Recently TV carried pictures of columns of smoke rising in the Arctic.    (Guardian Weekly, 31 July 2020, George Monbiot).

My comment:  How do they, the British government,  propose to restore the old order having left the EU, quite probably without a fair agreement and with the reputation of Britain and its government in tatters?  How do they expect the population to be content while selling the best bits of the National Health Service to huge US corporations? What is the future of an offshore island that cannot compete with the growing power of China by itself?  How are they going to thrive when their closest ally (the USA) is no longer reliable?  I could go on, but won’t.  These people are snake-oil merchants, selling to the gullible, and living in the 19th Century.  Poor grandchildren, literally poor.

Polar bears

By the end of the century, polar bears will have largely disappeared from the Arctic, a study published in Nature suggests. The authors examined the possible impact on the bears of two climate change scenarios: a “business-as-usual” one, in which greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise at their present rate; and a second in which they are moderately mitigated. In the former case, they found that most polar bears would begin to experience “reproductive failure” by the 2040s, and that by 2100 only one population would remain – in Canada’s Queen Elizabeth Islands. The outcome of the other scenario was only slightly less bleak, with most populations predicted to experience reproductive failure by 2080.

Unable to find all the sustenance they need on land, polar bears do much of their hunting on sea ice, preying on seals after staking out their breathing holes. The gradual disappearance of sea ice is already affecting some of the more southerly located polar bear populations: a 2014 study found that in eastern Alaska and western Canada, one population had declined by 40%.

My comment: But those with a dubious agenda are still denying climate change!  Who will they blame when the impending disaster becomes too obvious to ignore? Not themselves, you can be sure.  Poor polar bears!

The chaos and displacement started before the virus appeared

A total of 50.8 million people around the world were recorded as internally displaced in 2019, forced from their homes by conflict and disaster. This is the highest number ever, and 10 million more than in 2018. The figures come from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) in Norway.

The most displacements were recorded in sub-Saharan Africa amid violence in the Sahel and conflict in Somalia and South Sudan. Natural disasters in south and east Asia and the Pacific also displaced millions. Alexandra Bilak, the IDMC director, said it was too early to assess the full impact of coronavirus on efforts to address displacement. “A recession, of course is going to have an impact on the generosity of donor governments,” she said. “It’s going to be a really bad situation for everybody”.   (reported 4 months ago in The Guardian 28 April 2020)

We cannot, in August,  get an adequate handle on the spreading virus in the US, or help those Americans losing their homes and their jobs (disproportionately in the Black community).  So  it is unlikely that the US is going to concerned about Africa.   And now the news is full of reports about the ennui and exasperation of those stuck at home, probably for months more.  When all this is over we will wake up to the even worse disaster in Africa and other developing areas.  We cannot be immune to the results, including the growing violence. Peace of mind becomes increasingly fragile.

Bring back the Bobby

In the “good old days” the British neighborhood policeman was not just a law enforcer; he was also a social worker and man-of- all-work, known to all locally, even by name.   If your grannie with alzheimer’s disappeared and couldn’t find her way home, it was the local Bobby who would find her and escort her back. If some young yob threw a stone and broke your front window it was the local Bobby who routed him out and gave him a good talking to (or had him before a magistrate).  If your house alarm unexpectedly went off while you were out it would be the ubiquitous  Bobby who found his way into the house and turned it off.

And then came the squad car, and suddenly all the police were riding around in vehicles, dependent on radio calls from base and shut off from the people they knew and had been serving.  Quite quickly they lost that personal contact with the customers of the law, and those customers seldom saw the same policeman twice in a month, always through a car window, names unknown.  Putting police in squad cars was the stupidest thing done to law enforcement (although fewer policemen were needed, which. was the financial point, everything being about money).

Now take a look at American policing, and you see a parallel problem, except that the police are militarised and  are armed with guns, tasers and cameras. 

We are debating the de-funding of the police.  No.  Don’t do that.  Take away their squad cars, make them patrol on foot (or on a mobile segue (? ) and get to know the neighborhood and the residents.  O.K, this is America, so I suppose I have to compromise and let them keep their wretched guns.

Light relief: “Maturity”

Maturity

Now I’m mature I can sense in my heart

That it happened too late and I’m falling apart.

Its not just attention  I’m tending to lack

But my abs are less tight and my biceps are slack.

My hair, once a forest, now looks like a moor,

I was once eagle- eyed, but my eyesight’s now poor.

My hearing’s all right on the second repeat,

And I’d rather not mention the state of my feet,

I was only just telling a friend, by the way……

Damn!  I’ve totally lost what I wanted to say.

 

Giving up US citizenship

A record number of people are giving up their US citizenship, according to analysis by a New York accountancy firm.  More than 5,800 Americans renounced their citizenship in the first six months of 2020, Bambridge Accountants reports, a 1,210% increase on the six months to December 2019.

 The US’s global tax reporting requirements are a major reason why many people decide to cough up the $2,350 (£1,775) fee required to officially cut ties with the US. Boris Johnson, for example, renounced his US citizenship in 2016 after complaining about the “absolutely outrageous” US tax demands. Nevertheless, it seems that Trump is sending an increasing number of expats over the edge.

“What we’ve seen is that people are exasperated with President Donald Trump, how the coronavirus pandemic is being handled and the political policies in the US at the moment,” a partner at the firm commented to CNN. “If President Trump is re-elected, we believe there will be another wave of people who will decide to renounce their citizenship.”

My comment:  Epicureans do not normally get involved in party politics, but peace of mind is of great concern, and what is happening on a daily basis is making ordinary law-abiding people extremely nervous.  Nowhere is perfect, but a small village in France or Italy seems increasingly attractive, even given the fact that the bureaucracy there is notorious.  I personally would like to live somewhere where people are taught science, and respect it (personally, I am an historian – all the more reason to listen to scientists).  Why do far too many Americans despise science?  Baffles me!   Please explain!

Harassment

A Belgian man has been the victim of a bizarre nine-year-long harassment campaign: for nearly a decade, he has been sent pizzas that he never ordered.

“I cannot sleep any more,” said Jean Van Landeghem, who lives in Turnhout. “I start shaking every time I hear a scooter on the street.” One day in 2019, ten delivery drivers turned up on a single day, one of them trying to deliver 14 pizzas. The 65-year-old has reported the campaign to police, but still doesn’t know who’s behind it. “I cannot take it any more,” he said.

My comment:  this is my 2020 choice of weirdest  piece of news I have spotted.   At least it is not about dire and distressing party politics.  I could handle any number of pizzas in preference to being bombarded by those.

Artificial intelligence: not so intelligent after all?

To The Economist

Artificial intelligence is an oxymoron. Intelligence is an attribute of living things, and can best be defined as the use of information to further survival and reproduction. When a computer resists being switched off, or a robot worries about the future for its children, then, and only then, may intelligence flow.

I acknowledge Richard Sutton’s “bitter lesson”, that attempts to build human understanding into computers rarely work, although there is nothing new here. I was aware of the folly of anthropomorphism as an AI researcher in the mid-1980s. We learned to fly when we stopped emulating birds and studied lift. Meaning and knowledge don’t result from symbolic representation; they relate directly to the visceral motives of survival and reproduction. Great strides have been made in widening the applicability of algorithms, but as Mr Sutton says, this progress has been fuelled by Moore’s law. What we call AI is simply pattern discovery. Brilliant, transformative and powerful, but just pattern discovery.

Further progress is dependent on recognising this simple fact, and abandoning the fancy that intelligence can be disembodied from a living host.  (Rob MacDonald, Richmond, North Yorkshire. (letter to The Week 11 July 2020)

My thought: As I thought, not so intelligent after all.

Hope for prostate cancer patients

Prostate cancer breakthrough

A total of 57,192 new prostate cancer cases were diagnosed in the UK in 2018, making it the most commonly diagnosed form of the disease.

A simple blood test could be used to identify prostate cancer patients who are less likely to respond to certain drugs, or at risk of relapse, paving the way for more tailored treatments.

A team at two hospitals in London tested 1,000 blood samples drawn from 216 men who were taking part in a clinical trial into drugs for advanced prostate cancer. They found that those with high levels of tumour DNA in their blood at the start of treatment had worse health outcomes; and that the men who responded to treatment had the most significant drop in tumour DNA over its course. Their levels typically reduced 23%, whereas the patients who partially responded to treatment had a 16% drop. As liquid biopsies are cheaper, quicker and less invasive than surgical ones, doctors can carry them out more often – making it easier for them to track the effectiveness of treatments.  ( The Week, 13 June 2020)

My comment: I have a personal reason for including this piece of information –  I had prostate cancer and also had the operation, not a pleasant experience.  If you are male and over , say 40, you should get yourself tested, every year as directed.  Not to do so could kill you.  Message received?

Population : the global crash

The world is ill-prepared for the coming global crash in children being born.  Falling fertility rates mean nearly every country could have shrinking populations by the end of the century.   23 nations – including Spain and Japan – are expected to see their populations halve by 2100. and there will be as many people turning 80 as there are being born.

What is going on?

The fertility rate – the average number of children a woman gives birth to – is falling.   If it falls below approximately 2.1, then the size of the population starts to fall.

In 1950, women were having an average of 4.7 children in their lifetime.  By 2017 the global fertility rate nearly halved to 2.4.  A Lancet  study projects that it will fall below 1.7 by 2100.

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As a result, the researchers expect the number of people on the planet to peak at 9.7 billion around 2064, before falling to 8.8 billion by the end of the century.  “That’s a pretty big thing; most of the world is transitioning into natural population decline,” researcher Prof Christopher Murray told the BBC.  “We will have to reorganise societies to address it”.

The falling fertility rate is being driven, not by falling sperm counts, but by more women in education and work, and greater access to contraception.  Key population forecasts for the end of the century are as follows:

Japan’s : fall from a peak of 128 million in 2017 to less than 53 million.  

Italy: from 61 million to 28 million over the same timeframe.

23 countries – including Spain, Portugal, Thailand and South Korea – populations will  more than halve.

China, peak population 1.4 billion in 2024, then droppingto 732 million by 2100. India will take its place as largest country. 

The UK:  75 million in 2063, and falling to 71 million by 2100.

 183 out of 195 countries will end the century with a fertility rate below the replacement level.

This is good for carbon emissions and for deforestation of farmland, but it also means more old people than young people on the planet.  The number of over 80-year-olds will soar from 141 million in 2017 to 866 million in 2100. (James Gallagher,  Health and science correspondent, BBC  15 July 2020)

My big question: Who will pay tax in a massively aged world? Who will pay for healthcare for the elderly? Who will look after the elderly?  And will anyone ever again be able to retire? 

The Narrowing of the American mind

It is of course appalling that a columnist for The New York Times should feel obliged to resign on account of the in-house bullying she’s had to endure. Bari Weiss was hired by the paper three years ago, as it sought to recruit voices that could challenge its dominant liberal ethos. And though no hard-line conservative – she’d left The Wall Street Journal in protest at its gradual surrender to Donald Trump – Weiss was happy to take on left shibboleths, questioning the excesses of #MeToo, debunking the notion of cultural appropriation, and so on.

But for many of her fellow journalists this sin against left orthodoxy was unacceptable. “They’ve called me a Nazi and a racist,” she wrote in her resignation letter. “My work and my character are openly demeaned on company-wide Slack channels.”

Yet before the Right gets on its high horse over “the dangerous cancel culture that Democrats want to impose” on the nation, it should examine its own role in all this. For “if the Left is woke, the Right is bespoke: it has become tailored around one person”. And that person is Trump. The right-wing press gives little house room to any journalist who is critical of him. What we are seeing on both sides “is the narrowing of the American mind”.   It’s making everyone nastier.  (Mona Charen,  Chicago Sun-Times and The Week25 July 2020)